By Josh Rottenberg
September 22, 2012 at 11:28 PM EDT
In 1994, Steve James followed two inner-city Chicago high school students as they pursued their dreams of becoming the next Michael Jordan in the critically acclaimed, must-see documentary Hoop Dreams. Two decades later, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker is back with another documentary about sports, this one focused on the growing awareness of the risks of long-term brain damage from blows to the head in football, hockey, and other contact sports. Head Games opens this weekend, and James talked to EW about why he decided to shine the spotlight on the epidemic of concussions among athletes, the NFL’s handling of the problem, and how it could reshape the future of sports.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What led you to make a film about the dangers of concussions in sports?

Steve James: I was approached by one of the executive producers, Steve Devick, because he had optioned [former Harvard football player and WWE pro wrestler] Chris Nowinski’s book, Head Games. He said, “Read this and if you’re interested, I’d like to get a documentary going based at least in part on this book.” I read the book and I just thought it was great. People who follow this issue know who Chris Nowinski is, but usually his story is relegated to two minutes of a news-magazine piece or something. I liked the idea of really spinning out how he played such a central role in turning this into the public health issue it’s become.

How did you go from there to finding the athletes you build the film around?

It was an organic process. When we started out, I thought the film might be about pro football exclusively. As a country, we love football so much, and it’s such a big focus of media attention. But as we went along, it became clear there are other sports that aren’t really getting enough attention on this issue—and I also don’t think there’s been enough attention paid on the amateur level. Once we decided we wanted to include hockey, [former NHL player] Keith Primeau was suggested as someone who both cared about this issue and whose career had been ended by concussions. When I found out his sons played hockey and one of his sons had had a concussion, that made him even more interesting. [Former U.S. Olympic soccer player] Cindy Parlow was a really terrific player whose career ended in her 20s because of concussions. And then, of course, Owen Thomas, the football player at Penn who became the first college player to be discovered with [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]—that story really touched me. [Thomas committed suicide in 2010 at age 21.]

What kind of cooperation did you get from the NFL and NHL?

We tried to get more people from the NFL management, starting the top with [commissioner] Roger Goodell. But the NFL was only willing to give us the guys that sit on the concussion committee for them. We weren’t able to get anybody higher up to participate, despite repeated attempts. The NHL, on the other hand, gave us great access. The NHL was more cooperative across the board, which I give them a lot of credit for because they knew we were going to criticize them on the fighting issue. I know all of the arguments about why fighting is still accepted in pro hockey. But from the standpoint of concussions, it’s indefensible, and that’s what this film is about.

How do you assess the NFL’s handling of this issue?

I don’t think there’s any question that the NFL willfully played down concussions, and I think the film makes clear that they acted irresponsibly. There’s also no question that they’re taking the issue much more seriously now. Football is at the top of the sports pyramid in this country in terms of fans and interest and how lucrative it is. It’s hard to imagine that changing. But there was a time when boxing was the world sport and the heavyweight boxing champion was the most famous athlete on the planet, and that’s no longer the case. The whole point of boxing is to give someone a concussion, and I think one of reasons boxing fell was that at some point the brutality of the sport made people uncomfortable. Who knows where football will be in 10 years? I think football is worried about where they’ll be in five years. The NFL just made another donation, a $30 million donation [to the National Institutes of Health], to study [brain injuries]. I think they’re trying to get on the right side of this issue and save their sport.

Trying to stop, say, hockey players from dropping their gloves and bashing away at each other in a fight is one thing. But if, as the film shows, even heading a soccer ball can put your brain at risk, how do we realistically deal with the dangers of head injuries in sports?

I didn’t want the film to ultimately be a polemic saying we should ban contact sports. First of all, I think that’s premature. There are things to be done short of banning any sport that can make them safer, and you learn about some of that in the film. Secondly, I don’t think we know enough yet. There’s much more focus on this issue now, but there’s a lot we still don’t know. Until we know more, it’s easy to become hysterical on the issue. But I think we’re much better off erring on the side of being overly cautious than not cautious enough. I felt like the greater purpose this documentary could serve right now is to lay out what we do know and don’t know and leave it to the viewers to make informed decisions. Parents who’ve seen the movie whose kids play contact sports have said, “My God, we really have to sit down as a family and talk about this.” That’s really what I want. There’s just so much at stake here.